The answer varies depending on the fish. The issue of wild versus farmed leads to questions about fishing and farming methods, and whether a species has been overfished.
The most common industrial fishing methods—bottom trawling and dredging—use enormous nets and raking bars that drag across the ocean floor. This destroys habitats and collects a large “bycatch”—unwanted ocean creatures that are killed or injured when caught in the nets. What’s more, many species such as Atlantic salmon, Atlantic halibut, and bigeye tuna are overfished—so depleted that they are unable to replenish their populations. Lower-impact fishing methods, such as the use of pots and traps, or trolling, are more sustainable.
Fish farms can cause their own set of problems, such as the spread of sea lice to wild fish, use of synthetic feed, and accumulation of fish waste on the ocean floor. Picking fish that are farmed responsibly from your nearest coast or freshwater farm may allow you to inquire more deeply into the practices of the farm, will lower the carbon footprint associated with transport, and the fish will be fresher than those that have traveled longer distances.
Organizations such as the Marine Stewardship Council issue eco-labels to certify fish, fish farms, fisheries, and supply chain businesses as sustainable and environmentally responsible. Seafood Watch pocket guides, offered by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, rate farmed and wild species as “best,” “good,” and “avoid.” Pocket guides can be obtained online at the Monterey Bay Aquarium website and at some grocery stores and restaurants.
There are many widely agreed-upon good and bad fish choices. Among the best: wild Alaskan and Pacific salmon, domestically farmed catfish, rainbow trout, and shellfish like oysters, clams, and mussels. Avoid bluefin tuna, Atlantic cod, red snapper, and grouper due to overfishing and harmful fishing methods. When in doubt, do additional research and ask questions. Doing so alerts markets and restaurants of consumer demand for more sustainable options.